There is some dispute among theologians over whether there is such a thing as common grace, a grace available to all mankind. Those who oppose the notion concede that God causes the rain to fall on the just and the unjust, as Scripture teaches. They reason, however, that when God causes the rain to fall on those who not only are not just, but who He knows never will be just, that His gift is a sort of Trojan horse. They reason that each drop of rain will become a rain of fire in the afterlife. The idea is that when God is good to the reprobate, those whom He has not elected unto life, He is merely heating the coals of hell hotter for them.
Even if we grant that premise, however, we need to see that common grace is still grace. It is still undeserved favor, even if that favor lasts only for a time. The coals of hell are hotter because the reprobate fails to respond to the grace of God with grace, that is, gratefully.
When the apostle Paul begins his argument for the special and particular grace of God in the redemption of His elect, he sets the stage by arguing first for the universal condemnation of all men. He recognizes that there can be no good news without there first being bad news. We cannot celebrate redemption until we know that we are slaves. And so, Paul begins: “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who suppress the truth in unrighteousness, because what may be known of God is manifest in them, for God has shown it to them. For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead, so that they are without excuse” (Rom. 1:18–20). Like John, Paul condemns those living in the dark for failing to concede the presence of the light.
The problem of men, then, is not a lack of knowledge. We are not lost because we are ignorant, because we do not know. We do not have a problem with our capacity for knowledge or with the availability of the message. We are lost because we despise what we know. And the fruit that grows out of this hatred of what we know is revealed in the next verse: “because, although they knew God, they did not glorify Him as God, nor were thankful, but became futile in their thoughts, and their foolish hearts were darkened” (Rom. 1:21).
Not only have theologians disputed the nature and existence of common grace, they have argued over what was the primordial sin. We all agree, as Paul demonstrates in the remaining verses of Romans 1, that sin begets sin. When we fail here, we will always fail there. But what is the starting point? What is the root of sin? Satan’s fall came about, Scripture says, when pride was found in him (Isa. 14:12–15). Others have suggested that sloth was the “original” sin. It does not take Paul long, however, to get to the root of the matter—failure to be grateful.
Ingratitude doesn’t have a high “shudder” factor. It doesn’t bring the revulsion that comes with some of the later fruit Paul lists, such as sexual perversion. We don’t look back over history and list the ungrateful among the hideously wicked, along with the Hitlers and Stalins. But perhaps we should. Consider the grace God has showered on all men. First, He creates us and the world around us, even though He does not owe us existence or a place in His created order. Second, He reveals Himself to us. Third, He sustains us day by day. He gives us, like the sparrows, the food we eat, the water we drink, the very air we breathe. But He does still more, for even the heathen are more valuable than the sparrows. God imbues all men with dignity, declaring them to be bearers of His image. He gives men the capacity to reason, to feel, to communicate. We were dust, and see how He has lifted all of us up. Our response is rebellion and ingratitude. But He responds with still more grace. He provides a way of escape in the work of His Son, commanding all men everywhere to repent and believe. And then, still by His grace, He postpones the execution of His justice from the time of our conception to the time of our death. And still we are not grateful.
We, of course, receive still more—His special redeeming grace. He not only makes it possible for our sins to be covered, He makes it so. He makes us first to profess that we are fools, then graces us with wisdom. He not only doesn’t punish us, He punishes another for us and promises to reward us eternally for the obedience that we do not give. And still, we are not grateful.
Ingratitude does not shock us, not because it is so damning, but because it is so common. We are at peace with the lack of gratitude in the world around us because we are at peace with our own lack of gratitude. We should not be surprised that the flesh we are to mortify continues to do what it did before we were reborn, failing to be grateful.
We are not grateful because we have confused ourselves with God. We think we are good and He is morally skating on thin ice. We think He owes us because we have been good enough to enlist in His cause, to embrace His teaching. We find Him wonderful only to the degree that He finds us wonderful. We are not grateful for the same reason as the unbelievers, because we do not glorify Him as God. He decreases that we might increase.
If, however, we live before His face, coram Deo, then we know Him as He is. And if we know Him, how can our lives be anything but the manifestation of our truly grateful hearts? When we see Him, we know what we are. When we know what we are, we know what He has done for us. We respond by glorifying Him as God. We glorify Him both for what He is and for what He has done for us in His grace. And we rejoice that His grace toward us is anything but common.